Annals of Self-Care Vol. 2: Self-Massage Basics

Yikes!  This thing is more cranky than my 4-year-olds!
Yikes! This thing is more cranky than my 4-year-olds!

Most of us are familiar with this scenario: you’re running along and you feel a twinge somewhere.  You think “hmmm…”, but you tell yourself it’s nothing until you get home and – ouch! – when the endorphins wear off you’re limping around your living room, heart sinking as you realize a few dreaded rest days are in your future.  You feel helpless – darn this sport we love! – as you are forced to be patient while your sore spot settles down.

Well, here’s some good news: you are not as powerless to prevent this as you think!  With some basic proficiency in self-massage techniques you can help yourself out by preempting overuse injuries, or by working them out as they are starting to occur.  In my view, self-massage should be a regular part of a runner’s daily routine.  Prior to a run, it can be used to even out asymmetric muscular tensions that occur because of all the non-running things we do in our lives: sitting at a desk, commuting in the car, carrying squirming toddlers around, etc.  These imbalances affect our running gait, which can cause strain over thousands of steps.  After a run, it’s a great way to make sure everything feels healthy, and to help things recover if they don’t.

So, what exactly can you do?  Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

Use your hands: Many of us are prepping for our runs using some kind of tool, most commonly a foam roller.  However, I think it’s helpful to first feel around with your hands – they are quite a bit more sensitive for picking up sore spots than a tool.  If there’s an area that has been a chronic problem for you, probe around there before you run.  Or if something felt sore during a run, check it out afterwards.  See if you can find anything that feels knotted or tight.  If you find something, apply steady pressure there with one of your thumbs, then place your other thumb on top of the first one to add additional pressure.  With thumb over thumb, make ten slow circles in one direction and then reverse and make ten more slow circles in the opposite direction.  Your skin will move, but you should not lose contact with the spot you are working on.  If it doesn’t release, hold steady pressure on the area while moving the most closely associated joint through its full range of motion.  For example, if you are working on a spot in your calf, move your ankle: point, flex, invert and evert your foot while keeping pressure on the tight area in your calf.  Many times you can work things out just with your hands alone, which is great because you have them with you all the time!

Use a tool: If you don’t have any luck working something out with your hands, move on to a tool.  In a recent post, I described a few of my favorites if you are not sure what to use.  When using a tool, move slowly and make sure you are moving your body on it in all planes of motion.  For instance, if you are lying on your foam roller working a spot in your quad, don’t just roll up and down over the spot.  Also work side to side and circular motions.  Again, you can use movement of the closest joint to help you out.  With our quad example, if you are on your foam roller in contact with a sore spot, bend and straighten your knee, or move your leg from side to side, while maintaining contact with the spot.  If the tool you are using isn’t working for you, switch to a different one.

Fire away: Sometimes a muscle will release more readily after you fire it; doing so increases blood flow to the area, promoting waste removal and recovery.  An easy way to do this is to intersperse brief muscle contractions in with your other soft-tissue work.  If it’s your calf you are working on and you’re having trouble getting it to release, get up on forefoot and hold the calf contraction for 5-10 seconds before resuming your work.  For your glutes, squeeze your butt cheeks as hard as you can and hold, or tense up your quads if that’s the area giving you trouble.  For tougher areas to contract, such as hip flexors or hamstrings, you may need to do several reps of an exercise that fires the muscle, such as jackknives or hamstring curls on a stability ball.  Repeat several times if needed.  Warming the tight area with a heating pad or some warm water (detachable shower head, water bath) can also be helpful.

Check your work: There is a lot of debate on the utility of static stretching, and I’m not going to get into that in this post, but one way I think it can be useful is to monitor the progress of your self-massage.  If you’ve worked on an area and had some success at getting it to release, double-check it with a static stretch of that muscle.  Does it feel the same as when you stretch the area on the other side?  Frequently this can tell you if you truly are done or if the area still needs a little more work.

Masseuse or sex worker?

Consult the experts: If you have a relationship with a skilled chiropractor, massage therapist or physical therapist, pay attention to what they are doing when they work on you and try to emulate it at home if you can.  You can even ask them to explain what they are doing, and show you how you might do something similar at home to maintain the work they are doing for you.  I’ve had the good fortune to learn from some excellent practitioners, which has saved me many a time as you can’t always get in for an appointment exactly when you need one.

And, of course, if there’s something that’s been bothering you that doesn’t go away after  a few days of rest and self-care, always consider further evaluation by a healthcare professional.

Do you use self-massage?  What techniques have you found to be most helpful?

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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  1. Great post! I get stuck in a rut with my foam roller and just go back and forth. I’ve been having some minor issues with my quad tendon, so your suggestions for working on the quads are perfect for me right now.

  2. It’s worth noting that the stretching post to which you linked talks about Gretchen Reynolds’ railing against stretching. I wrote it, and at the time I was interested in what she had to say, but having delved further now I think there is a strong element of…how you say…bullshit…to the church of “no static stretching.” It’s easy to read Reynolds’ Times blog and come out thinking static stretching might not be good for you, but that’s not quite what the science says. The subtleties are, perhaps, best saved for another post.

    The point here is that static stretching is a valuable part of a massage routine, no matter what you may read as a result of clicking through to that link or the works cited therein.

    1. I wind up feeling that way about things written in the NYTimes (which I happen to love) a lot – it’s easy to take what’s written there at face value but if the topic is something you have more than superficial knowledge about, you realize oftentimes things are either overly simplified or written with a distinct bias without presenting all the data. I definitely agree with you about the utility of static stretching – there’s great evidence to support it in a number of circumstances – and certainly this could be a good topic for another post.